French ethics body paves way for national debate on legalising euthanasia

·2-min read

France is a step closer to legalising euthanasia after a national ethics committee on Tuesday said it was in favour of assisted suicide under strict, supervised conditions.

The eagerly awaited report by the National Consultative Ethics Committee (CCNE) comes ahead of a citizens' convention in October that has been set up to examine the issue – a priority for President Emmanuel Macron’s second term in office.

Arguing that France needed “more humanity”, Macron earlier this year said he wanted the country to “evolve” towards the "Belgian model" of decriminalising euthanasia, particularly in cases of serious degenerative disease.

"I am convinced that we must move because there are inhumane situations that persist and to which we must give answers," Macron said.

Belgian example

Euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002, with an estimated two patients being helped to die every month. It is even authorised for minors, although such deaths are rare.

The job of the citizens' convention, which will meet over a period of six months, is to “peacefully debate” how to ethically apply assistance in dying in France – with a view to preparing a draft bill by the end of 2023.

While neighbours Spain, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland already authorise controlled euthanasia, in France it’s been harder to reach a political consensus on the issue.

In an opinion published in June 2013, the CCNE found the “prohibition of killing” should remain a founding principle of French society.

In 2016, the government enacted the Claeys-Leonetti law – which still applies today – forbidding euthanasia for end-of-life patients and instead introducing the right to deep and continuous sedation until death.

French residents often travel to Belgium or Switzerland for the right to die, while French doctors reportedly perform an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 assisted deaths each year.

Stumbling blocks

Attempts to pass right-to-die legislation through the French parliament have in recent years been thwarted by mainly right-wing opposition MPs.

The committee’s report on Tuesday marks a complete departure from its earlier stance.

"There is a way to ethically apply active assistance in dying, under certain strict conditions with which it seems unacceptable to compromise," one of the report’s authors told a press conference.

Indeed an Ifop poll in 2021 found that French opinions were inconsistent with the country’s laws – with 93 percent of people saying they favoured euthanasia.